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‘Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders’ review: Edie Falco steals the show

Edie Falco as attorney Leslie Abramson in

Edie Falco as attorney Leslie Abramson in "Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders." Credit: NBC / Justin Lubin

THE SHOW “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders”

WHEN | WHERE 10 p.m. Tuesday on NBC/4

WHAT IT’S ABOUT For its first “true crime,” this eight-episode limited series goes back to Aug. 20, 1989. Around 10 p.m., shots were fired at 722 N. Elm Dr., Beverly Hills. The bodies of Kitty (Lolita Davidovich) and entertainment industry executive José Menendez (Carlos Gómez) are later found by police. At first, detectives Les Zoeller (Sam Jaeger) and Tom Linehan (Cliff Chamberlain) don’t suspect the couple’s sons, Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and Erik (Gus Halper), if only because Erik is so distraught. A lover’s quarrel between Erik’s psychiatrist, Dr. L. Jerome Oziel (Josh Charles), and his mistress, Judalon Smyth (Heather Graham), ultimately has something to do with changing the cop’s minds, and the brothers are arrested. Erik then hires attorney Leslie Abramson (Edie Falco), who eventually learns of his family’s darkest family secrets.

 MY SAY Once you get accustomed to Falco and her hair in wild corkscrew curls (I kept thinking of “Sideshow Bob” so this could take a while), you’ll see “Crime” for what it is: A good and particularly long episode of “Law & Order.” The fundamentals and the formula are fixed in place. The script is deftly written, and should be — Emmy-winning “Law & Order” writer René Balcer produced this show. Lesli Linka Glatter’s direction is sharp and fat-free. The cast builds its characters skillfully and efficiently. There’s an air of brisk professionalism to the whole enterprise.

So what, then, is the fly in this soup? That’d be the crime. It was a horrifying tragedy, absent edifying moral or larger “meaning.” Few such crimes have those. Nevertheless, the first mistrial was covered relentlessly on TV in the early ’90s, bestowing the defendants and attorney a level of celebrity and sympathy. Charges of parental sexual abuse inflamed the coverage, especially coming in the wake of the McMartin preschool sex abuse scandal and trial. A TV movie was inevitable and even the original “Law & Order” got around to the Menendez case.

But not all TV crimes are created equally. FX’s “American Crime Story” anthology is based on those cases (O.J. Simpson, the murder of Gianni Versace) that are a lens on broader American pathologies — race and homophobia, respectively. As the next Menendez trial and subsequent failed appeals appeared to establish, theses murders were a lens on nothing other than greed.

“True Crime” still manages to hold a strong hand. Falco, to use the old line, is the sort of actress who could make the Yellow Pages sound interesting. In her few scenes during the first two episodes (the only ones for review), her face and those curls crowd the screen. Her eyes are manic and haunted, but her bark suggests a worse bite. She scatters reporters like pigeons. She addresses judges as she might ill-mannered and not particularly bright children. Her husband is of the long-suffering variety.

There’s also a maternal impulse. Along with legal representation, her clients get the tender care and devotion of a doting mother. It sounds twisted and looks a little twisted, too. It’s also fascinating, and you come to realize — or hope — that “True Crime” isn’t about the Menendez brothers at all. It’s about their lawyer.

BOTTOM LINE Falco and her curls steal the show. They’re both are fascinating. The “true crime” part is much less so.

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